John Fox was down this road before. He took over a Carolina Panthers team in 2002 that was 1-15 the previous season, improved that record to a respectable 7-9 in year one and took the Panthers to the Super Bowl in year two. A decade later, Fox is trying to work the same magic with the Denver Broncos.
Fox will bring his 1-2 Broncos into Lambeau Field this Sunday for a game against the hottest team in football, the Green Bay Packers, the reigning Super Bowl champions and the authors of a nine-game winning streak that stretches all the way back to last Christmas.
"That whole offense is pretty good. That's a huge challenge," Fox, who made his name as a defensive coordinator, said of the Packers.
Fox is in the process of trying to rebuild the Broncos' defense. That's job one in Denver, where the Broncos fell to last in the league in total defense last season under controversial head coach Josh McDaniels. McDaniels was fired 12 games into the season and the Broncos went on to finish 4-12.
Last season's collapse ushered in a new regime in Denver, led by iconic former quarterback John Elway, who heads the team's football operations. Elway picked Fox to lead the team on the field and Elway and Fox immediately went to work on the team's defense, making Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller the second pick of the draft and the cornerstone of Denver's defenses of the future.
Through three games, Miller has a couple of sacks and has done nothing to cause the Broncos to regret having drafted him. He's cause for true hope in Denver, but Broncos fans have aimed their discontent at the quarterback position, where formers Bears quarterback Kyle Orton is bearing the blame for the team's losing ways.
"I don't really care. Your only thoughts are on what can you do to get to 2-2?" Orton said during a conference call with Packers media on Wednesday.
Orton has thrown five touchdown passes, but three interceptions have compromised his passer rating, 79.1, just as a flurry of interceptions late last season ruined what had been a very impressive performance for much of the year, despite the Broncos' defensive failures.
Interceptions aren't the only thing dogging Orton. McDaniels' selection of Tim Tebow in the first round of the 2010 draft left Orton and the Broncos to deal with a quarterback said to be sorely in need of development, but whose popularity among fans has them clamoring for him to be installed as the team's starter.
Is it a distraction?
"That's on the outside. Things on the outside, if you want to stay in this business long, you don't let affect you," Fox said.
Orton has shown the ability to get hot and throw for a lot of yards and points, as he did early last season. He finished the season with 20 touchdown passes and a respectable 87.5 passer rating.
"I like Kyle as a player. I liked him coming out (in the draft)," Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said of Orton. "I think he throws the ball very well. He's doing a good job of managing their offense. We have to be ready for his game."
Under Fox, the Broncos' game has changed. McDaniels was a high-flying, offensive-minded coach. Fox plays it closer to the vest.
"We stick with the run a little more than we have in the past, and that's a good thing. We're a better third-down team than we were last year. We're a better red-zone team than we were last year," Orton said.
"I think we're definitely close, but the reality is we're 1-2. When we have everybody on the same page doing the same thing, we're a pretty darn good football team."
Fox knows what it'll take to do in Denver what he did in Carolina.
"It's similar in that there's a losing culture. That's how you get these jobs. That's all part of the process," he said.
Orton is familiar with Green Bay from Orton's days with the Bears.
"I can't wait to come back. I've always had a great amount of respect for their team. I came out of the draft with Aaron (Rodgers) and have always had a great respect for him," Orton said. Additional coverage - Sept. 28